In its 16 years on the market, the Toyota Highlander has been a stylish if inoffensive people mover. For the past quarter century now, Toyota itself has been masterful at that: Building cars that play the middle better than anything else. It doesn’t make many lust-worthy vehicles (at least not yet), but at the end of the day, it offers the masses what they want to buy. Solid, quality-built, and virtually maintenance-free, the company has become the master at selling the best all-rounders in virtually every segment you can name.
And that’s what makes its mid-size SUV so interesting — or at least, so far as playing the middle goes. Because the Highlander is as sure a sure thing as the brand has. Over 165,000 have been sold in the U.S. through November, making 2016 its best year ever. And if Toyota is the brand that has something for everyone, the Highlander lineup is a microcosm of that. Starting at just over $30K, and topping out at just over $50K fully-loaded, there are three rows, a trio of powertrains, and no fewer than eight different trims to offer something for everyone.
Except, the high-end Highlander runs into some in-house competition by way of the Lexus RX. In a curious case of chicken-and-egg, the midsize Lexus actually predates its Toyota platform-mate by two years. But today, they both share the company’s trusty K-Platform, which includes a 192.5 inch length, 109.8 inch wheelbase, and 4,000 pound-plus curb weight. So if you have around $50K to blow, want to say “Oh, what a feeling!” but aren’t sure where in your local Toyota superstore to do it, we’ll give you a hand in this latest installment of Buy This, Not That.
Tale of the tape:
At the top end of the Highlander segment sits the $47,880 all-wheel drive Hybrid Limited. We tested a 2016 model in February, and while a facelifted model has since bowed, it still has the same 3.5 liter Atkinson cycle V6 mated to a pair of electric motors and a CVT, good for a combined 306 horsepower. That powertrain isn’t a gem, but it does the trick. From our ’16 review:
In my week with the Highlander, its magic number was 23.5. I got 23.5 miles per gallon in bumper-to-bumper near-gridlock, on flat-land highways, on mountain highways, dirt roads, and in fields. No matter how much I pushed or prodded, the average economy never strayed from that mark. The hybrid system and gasoline engine play very well together, the stop/start function was nice and discreet, and frankly, I was impressed by it’s stubbornly consistent fuel returns.
Any way you slice it, 23.5 mile per gallon average is nothing to sneeze at in a two-plus ton people mover.
Inside, you’re treated to Toyota’s finest leather, wood, aluminum, and soft-touch materials, making the Highlander a comfortable place to spend time. Its un-bolstered seats can get tiresome on really long drives, but in most situations, things feel plenty cushy. One clear edge over the Lexus here is the standard third row, something the RX doesn’t even offer. So despite an identical length, the Highlander’s longer roof and taller greenhouse accommodates an extra two passengers (three if they’re tiny or have a thing for punishment), and gives the Toyota around 140 cubic feet of interior room.
The RX, however, gives you room for five, a sloping, floating roofline, and 108 cubic feet of the full Lexus experience. If you’re past the point of lugging your kids and all their friends, or making the big trips to Costco, then you won’t miss those precious extra feet missing from the RX. A cool $50,320 will land you an all-wheel drive RX350 F Sport, which also uses a 3.5 liter V6. Without a battery pack and AC motors (which are available on range-topping 450h models), the engine sends 295 horses and 268 pound-feet of torque to the wheels via an eight-speed automatic transmission. Combined fuel economy is a not-too-different 22 miles per gallon. And since it’s an F Sport, you get a revised suspension, cross-hatched spindle grille, darker trim bits, and “LFA inspired instrumentation.” That alone might add an extra 50 horsepower.
Inside, you get leather-trimmed power front seats, aluminum-trimmed dash with big Lexus analog clock, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shifter, and aluminum pedals — which might add another 20 horses. Goodies like real wood trim, dual-panel panoramic sunroof, and a high-roller Luxury Package are available, but it’ll set you back a whopping $4,485.
As Lexus continues to go bold with its designs, it’s beginning to separate itself from its parent company. A decade ago, a loaded Highlander and RX wouldn’t have felt too far off. But today, the bold Lexus would be our winner every day of the week. Not that there’s anything wrong with the Highlander, and it’s not like Toyota is having a problem selling them, but both these models hover around a certain threshold, and the Lexus just comes out on top.
And here it is: If you told someone that you spend $50K on a Lexus, their response would most likely be a nod, a “sounds about right,” or even a “not bad.” Tell someone you spent that on a Toyota, and their response would likely be a lot different. Not that the Highlander Hybrid Limited isn’t worth it, but when you design a family car for the everyman, that kind of money is a lot to ask. The Highlander has an extra row of seats, substantially more room out back, and a hybrid powertrain, but the RX350 F Sport is more comfortable, more stylish, and nearly as fuel efficient.
The Highlander may be one of the best people-movers on the market, but if you’re looking for luxury, you might as well embrace it and opt for the Lexus RX.